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Lib Dems race reduced to 'a farce'

SENIOR LIBERAL Democrats fear the race to succeed Paddy Ashdown will degenerate into a "messy farce" because seven possible runners are stubbornly refusing to slim down the field to a manageable size.

The seven MPs are playing a game of "who blinks first" as they test their level of support among the party's 88,000 members. Liberal Democrat grandees had hoped the number of candidates would be cut to four by now.

Instead, the rivals may go to the wire by waiting to see how many nominations they secure by the closing date of 28 June. They would then have three hours in which to decide whether to allow their names to go on to the ballot paper.

Some frantic last-minutehorse-trading could take place between rival candidates during the three-hour period, with one offering to stand aside for another in return for the promise of a senior frontbench job. "It will be a game of Russian roulette," one Liberal Democrat MP said yesterday.

Instead of raising the Liberal Democrats' profile, there are growing fears that the unwieldy contest might confuse partymembers and alienate the voters. "It's turning into a nightmare," said a senior party source.

Pressure is now mounting on some of the seven to stand aside quickly, rather than keep their names in the frame until the last possible moment.

Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs and defence spokesman, is said to be "agonising" over whether to stand, and is due to announce his decision soon.

Opponents of the front-runner, Charles Kennedy, see Mr Campbell, the party's elder statesman, as the only rival who can defeat him. Those with doubts about Mr Kennedy are said to include Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and Lord Steel of Aikwood, former leaders of the Social Democratic Party and Liberals respectively, before the two parties merged.

But Mr Campbell has alienated some potential backers by wavering and there is speculation that he will not run. Friends say he wants to be convinced he can win; as he enters the last lap of his political career, there is no merit in the former Olympic 100 metres runner coming second.

Such a decision would be a boost for Mr Kennedy, who has adopted a low profile since Mr Ashdown announced his surprise resignation in January, while other candidates have fought what Liberal Democrats call "a non- campaign". Officially, campaigning is banned until after the European Parliament elections on 10 June.

Mr Kennedy's backers say he has the "X factor" needed to broaden the party's appeal to the public. "We mustn't elect a William Hague figure who can pander to his party but looks hopeless on TV," said a Kennedy aide.

In turn, the Kennedy camp has launched a campaign to stop a bandwagon which has been running in favour of Jackie Ballard, MP for Taunton, the only woman in the race. Although little known outside Liberal Democrat circles, she has deep roots in the party. An outsider at the outset, allies say she now has the vital ingredient in any political campaign - momentum. "She is the nightmare scenario," said one of Mr Kennedy's backers.

She is also the candidate most hostile to Mr Ashdown's controversial strategy of forging closer links with Labour. The Kennedy camp believes that she would take the Liberal Democrats back into the wilderness, spurning Mr Blair's offers of a taste of power.

Links with Labour will dominate the election. The candidates divide into two camps on the issue - Mr Kennedy, Mr Campbell and Don Foster would broadly continue with Mr Ashdown's strategy, while Ms Ballard, David Rendel, Simon Hughes and Malcolm Bruce are more sceptical.

Mr Hughes will decide by the end of this month whether to run and Mr Bruce may also pull out after assessing his support. But Mr Foster and Mr Rendel are adamant they will go all the way, and so far the only candidate to "blink" is Nick Harvey, the Liberal Democrats' campaign chief, who is backing Mr Campbell.

Ballot papers will be sent out on 12 July, with the result of contest announced on 9 August.

The Contenders

Charles Kennedy: Ross, Skye and Inverness West MP. Elected at 24 in 1983. Favoured by Tony Blair. Telegenic, but accused of lacking grip on policy detail. Seen as lightweight after Call My Bluff TV appearance. Odds: 4-5

Jackie Ballard: Aged 46. Taunton MP. Very cool on close links with Labour. Only woman in race; but "the only candidate with balls", say her supporters. But lacking experience on the Westminster stage. Odds: 25-1

Don Foster: Aged 52. Ousted Chris Patten at Bath in 1992. Ashdown loyalist who favours close links with Labour. Articulate and energetic. Respected education spokesman but suffered humiliating defeat on schools policy at last autumn's Lib Dem conference.Odds: 16-1

David Rendel: 50-year-old social security spokesman, won Newbury seat in 1993 by-election. Has a power base amongst Lib Dem councillors. Favours "bargepole" approach with Labour. Likeable toff,but Old Etonian and Oxford background may count against him. Critics claim he lacks charisma. Odds: 10-1

Malcolm Bruce: 54-year-old MP for Gordon. Treasury spokesman, and a strong advocate of putting 1p on income tax to boost state education. Accused of being a lightweight.More of kingmaker than king. Odds: 33- 1

Simon Hughes: 48-year-old health spokesman captured safe-Labour Bermondsey seat in dirty 1983 by-election. "Thus far, no further" approach to Labour. Popular among grassroots.Disorganised.Odds: 10-1.